WHEN Honda executives first revealed the company’s Civic-based compact SUV concept at the Tokyo motor show in 1995, they couldn’t possibly have imagined that their so-called ‘Compact Recreational Vehicle’ would go on to become a worldwide best seller and one of the company’s most important models globally.
The arrival in Australia earlier last year of the fifth-generation Honda CR-V coincided with the model surpassing 8.7 million sales in more than 130 countries including this one, where the soft-roader has been a consistent strong seller and category standard-setter since launch in October 1997.
Ten years and four generations on from the arrival of that first model, the versatile Honda has become a familiar mainstay of our Aussie motoring landscape, and a trusted favourite of drivers won over by its versatility, affordability, reliability and efficiency.
The new model builds on that legacy of roominess and flexibility by introducing, for the first time, a third-row of seats in one version, a move which has corresponded with increased dimensions and a subtle positioning shift from ‘compact’ to ‘mid-size’ SUV.
The extra space and third row is designed, in part at least, to attract families left pondering the bewildering array of models on offer in this ultra-competitive segment, which is precisely why we find ourselves introducing CRV-03 as the latest Bulmer family long-termer.
Honda’s PR man seemed a little nervous handing over the keys, noting with no sense of irony whatsoever that our last long-termer, the Audi Q7 was “significantly bigger than the CR-V so the third row could be an issue if your kids are over the age of six or seven.”
While there’s no denying the dimensional differences between the gargantuan Audi and the mid-size Honda, nor the limitations of the CR-V’s tightly packaged third row, we are nonetheless happy to adopt this newly enlarged Honda as part of the family.
Fact is, with the Bulmer girls having notched up their 14th and ninth birthdays respectively, the third row doesn’t see a lot of action anyway, and is really only needed for occasional use, so that’s definitely not a deal breaker.
What may be, however, as we get further into our time with the CR-V, is the fact the third row doesn’t fold flat with the floor, instead sitting several inches proud of the luggage bay. This will no doubt have a deleterious impact on our ability to cram ridiculous amounts of unnecessary luggage into the boot on our next family road trip.
On the plus side, beneath the seat is a full-size 18-inch alloy, so all will be forgiven if we get a flat. As it stands, CRV-03 is designated a VTi-L, which means it’s the only seven seater in the four-tiered range, costs a reasonable $38,990, and sits above the base VTi and mid-spec VTi-S, but beneath the range-topping $44,290 VTi-LX.
The latter comes standard with AWD, while all-paw traction is a reasonable $2200 option on top of the VTi-S’s $33,290 base. However, if you must have seven seats then the VTi-L is your only option, and it in turn is only available with front-wheel drive.
We won’t know if that’s a problem until we’re bogged somewhere, but for most people, AWD is a nice to have, not a must have – and $2200 buys a lot of fuel … or perhaps one vehicle recovery.
All variants in the new range are powered by a 140kW 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder mated to a CVT and even the base VTi comes equipped with such niceties as keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, a reversing camera, a 7.0-inch display screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, tyre pressure monitoring and trailer stability assist.
The VTi-S adds 18-inch alloys, a power tailgate, sat-nav, front and rear parking sensors and a lanewatch driver alert function. Stepping up to the VTi-L brings all of this plus the third row of seats, a panoramic sunroof, part-leather trim, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, and an eight-way adjustable driver’s pew.
Sadly, the latter has already been the source of some minor family discord, with the wife and children having discovered to their horror that they have to adjust the front passenger seat manually.
Oh the shame.
Like millions of other working-class Aussies, economic necessity means I’m forced to endure a grinding cross-town commute twice a day, five days a week.
An upside for me, however, is that I get to do it in a wide range of cars and can spend at least some of those otherwise lost 60 minutes considering various aspects of vehicle performance.
Judging by my fellow motorists this discipline is not nearly as popular as talking or texting on the phone, picking one’s proboscis, or doing your nails, but it works for me.
My drive starts in the tree-fringed north-east of Melbourne and, depending on the chosen route, often includes the first 15 minutes traversing an undulating back road, laced with an assortment of hills, twists, turns and even the odd ’roo or fox sighting.
It’s bumpy too, so an insightful test of suspension set-up, steering precision and tyre grip, while also being far more engaging than the mundane multilane alternative.
It’s a road that shows up both some key Honda CR-V strengths – notably compliant ride quality, good tyre grip and torquey hill-eating ability – while also revealing weaknesses, such as its slow steering, leisurely turn-in and soft rebound damping.
To be fair, the CR-V is a compact family wagon and not really the sort of machine to go corner carving in. There’s no question that the dynamics are perfectly safe, and utterly predictable, and that’s what the people who buy a family SUV like this want, along with the utility.
While the reborn Civic Type R and NSX supercar show that Honda clearly has its mojo back with regards building dynamically sharp performance cars that can dissect corners with surgical precision, the CR-V shows the Minato-based conglomerate operating in an altogether different space on its broad spectrum of products.
I doubt I’ll ever become an ardent fan of the CVT transmission but, in tandem with Honda’s torquey, turbocharged 1.5-litre four-cylinder, the CR-V has won my respect for the way it effortlessly eats inclines on my morning run. The droning engine note that’s a fact of life with CVTs isn’t exactly desirable, but you can’t fault the way the transmission keeps the engine pinned in the meat of its torque curve, hovering between 2000-3000rpm and delivering instant acceleration without the pause, kick-down and flare of a traditional torque converter auto.
Surprisingly, in an era where start-stop technology is rapidly becoming the norm, the CR-V doesn’t feature it.
There is an eco-mode switch located next to the hi-mount transmission lever, but I’ve yet to seriously try it. However, with fuel economy running consistently in the mid-10s, it’s evident that its absence isn’t exactly hurting the Honda’s efficiency.
By the time my 30km morning commute is nearing the one hour mark I’ve been at the wheel long enough to appreciate the excellent comfort and support of the front seats, as well as the high driving position and terrific all-round visibility from within the airy cabin, if not the in-car hygiene habits of my fellow commuters.
GIVEN how long we spend at the wheel of our cars, a comfy driving position is almost as important as getting our hands on one of those fabled mattresses or pillows that the late night TV spruikers promise will change our sleep patterns forever. Dial 1-800 NOW!
Thankfully, the days of ‘Italian Ape’ driving positions, characterised by gorilla-length arms and stumpy legs, have largely been consigned to the dustbin of history. But despite huge advances in ergonomics, the occasional turkey still gets through. Our own Ford Falcon was one of them, with the swansong FG/FGX featuring a steering wheel that sat in your lap and could never be adjusted high enough.
Car engineers and designers will tell you there are all sorts of mitigating factors that lead to such compromises (most involving inherent conflicts between car engineers and designers), but regardless of the source, the end result is usually the same; a driver constantly fiddling with seat and steering position in a vain attempt to get settled.
I have a rule of thumb that if I can’t get comfortable in the first couple of minutes, the driving position is probably flawed and I should just accept my lot and stop fiddling.
Fortunately, there are no such issues with the Honda CR-V, which has one of the best driving positions of any car I’ve steered in a long while. It helps that the extra ground clearance and high roof enable an elevated seating position that makes getting in and out especially easy, but once in position, it’s quickly apparent that a lot of effort has gone into ensuring the driver remains comfortable.
My second-from-top spec Honda CR-V VTi-L has the usual range of electric adjustment for the driver’s seat, and manual reach and height adjustment for the leather wheel. But the seat shape and structure is also notable for keeping me feeling fresh and not bent out of shape after several hours at the wheel.
With its high driving position, supportive leather buckets, big windscreen and extensive glasshouse, the Honda CR-V boasts superb visibility that helps keep all occupants in a comfortable state of mind.
In combination with the panoramic sunroof, the CR-V feels remarkably airy, a fact that often makes it our first choice for a family drive, even if there’s a sportier or more prestigious set of wheels available.
Unfortunately, the compliments don’t quite extend to the third row, which has to make do with a small triangular window and accommodation that’s a squeeze, even with the second row slid forward.
On the plus side, second- and third-row occupants do get the benefit of individual air vents and temperature controls overhead and boy is the air-con good. With the thermostat set to ‘freeze’ and the fan to ‘wind tunnel’, you can barely hear the little beggars shivering and complaining about the compromised seating position.
Harden up kiddies, back in my day…
YOU KNOW a long-termer has connected with you in a deep and meaningful way when you find yourself crunching the numbers to see if it can replace your regular family wheels on a permanent basis.
Such is the impression the Honda CR-V has had over the past four months, slowly working its way into my head and heart so that I now find myself seriously investigating the option of permanent ownership. Or, rather, my accountant is doing so on my behalf.
Yes, it’s really that good. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s that good a family car.
So, what is it exactly about the CR-V that makes it so well suited to claiming a permanent place in the family driveway? First, its right sized: like many nuclear-families of two adults and two kids – one a teen and the other a tween – we don’t really need something as vast as a Mazda CX-9.
Of course, there are always exceptions, where you find yourself wishing for a few extra cubic metres of boot space while cramming for an annual holiday, but for the most part we’ve found the CR-V’s standard 472-litre luggage bay perfectly adequate. Plus, its mid-sized exterior dimensions make it far easier to park than full-sized rivals.
Within that nicely detailed and well-proportioned exterior is a spacious and beautifully built interior, with VTi-L specifics that include a panoramic sunroof, part-leather trim, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, and an eight-way adjustable driver’s seat. On the downside, the front passenger seat is manually adjustable, which seems a little grim given the $38,990 price tag.
| Read the Wheels review next: 2018 Honda CR-V DTi-L review
Accommodation in the first and second rows is excellent, so too visibility, while good ergonomics ensure everything is easy to find and operate. Case in point is the range of well thought out storage options; things like large door pockets that can hold a full-sized drink bottle; multiple storage nooks for phones, wallets and keys; a deep centre console for larger objects; and a clever little sliding tray atop the console to avoid losing items to the void below.
Ease of ingress and egress is equally important to families and the Honda is a test case for how to design an SUV that makes the business of getting in and out of its comfortable pews especially easy. This is particularly the case with the CR-V’s second row, accessed via clever rear doors that swing open to a near-90-degree angle.
The VTi-L is the only variant in the current CR-V range to feature a third row of seats, which Honda has cleverly shoe-horned into this generation courtesy of a 40mm wheelbase stretch. It’s handy, to be sure, but anyone buying a CR-V and thinking of putting teens or tweens back there should know that it’s pretty tight, and such a move could increase said teen’s legendary moodiness.
Of course, roominess and build quality are both important, but the CR-V must still deliver on the fundamentals of good ride, handling and performance. There are no major issues here, although the suspension set-up definitely prioritises ride comfort over corner carving and initially comes across as a little soft, with electric power steering that’s a bit on the slow side. However, the more you drive the CR-V, the more confident you become pressing on, and the more you realise that it’s endowed with fundamentally sound dynamics.
Read more: 2018 Honda CR-V: Which spec is best?
This helps bolster the Honda’s safety credentials, which are then backed up by a strong suite of active safety aids including ABS with EBD, blind-spot monitoring, lane keeping, stability assistance for car and a trailer, tyre pressure monitoring, front and side airbags plus full length curtain airbags for all three rows.
More advanced electronic safety features, including AEB are available only on the top-spec VTi-LX. It’d be nice to see Honda bring these features down into its lower-spec models, as rival Mazda has, but there’s no argument in my mind that the CR-V is anything but a safe place to put your family.
Performance from the 140kW/240Nm 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is decently brisk, and with the engine’s maximum torque delivered from a low 2000rpm, the CR-V is a gutsy, effortless performer. That’s despite the engine being paired exclusively to a CVT transmission which, while aiding thriftiness, doesn’t add much to the driving experience. I remain lukewarm about the technology.
Not so the 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which quickly became a favourite with the kids, who kindly monopolised the Bluetooth audio streaming connection, to the detriment of my Slim Dusty collection. Sadly, four USB ports meant their phones were rarely in danger of dying either.
And it’s on that sad note that we bid sayonara, or rather “Laéw-jer-gan,” to Honda’s Thai-built and thoroughly impressive family SUV. I await the accountant’s verdict as to whether we can have a new family car or not, but regardless of whether he green-lights it, I’ll have no hesitation in recommending the CR-V to friends as a fine family hauler, one with a depth of quality that will leave owners satisfied long after the new-car smell has gone.